Tim Ferriss talks about it a lot.
My brother read it this summer when we met up at mom’s place.
And I got it in the fall, when picking up a few books from an online bookstore, so when the reading challenge of 2018 crystallized in my mind, including Letters from a Stoic by Seneca was an easy choice.
It’s amazing that this book is made up of letters written almost two thousand years ago, and here I sit, reading them. Two thousand (!) years later. That is mind-blowing. Aside from that, there are parts of the book that really resonate with me, and other parts I struggle with. I do like the Stoic drive to “learn in order to be a better human”, but at the same time, the prescriptiveness of the Stoic way of living jars with my fairly recent understanding that what works for me, doesn’t necessarily work for you.
But how can I object to advice such as this on reading:
“You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find lasting place in your mind.”
Or thoughts such as this on friendship:
“But if you are looking on anyone as a friend when you do not trust him as you trust yourself, you are making a grave mistake, and have failed to grasp sufficiently the full force of true friendship.”
And trust (in my naivety I do go for the first one, perhaps that’s why I like this line?):
“Trusting everyone is as much a fault as trusting no one (though I should call the first the worthier and the second the safer behavior).”
And this, taken from a longer conversation on traveling, which I find to be of extraordinary value today, what with the migration issues we are facing, which I believe will only get worse. Unless, that is, we heed Seneca’s words:
“Where you arrive does not matter so much as what sort of person you are when you arrive there. We ought not, therefore, give over our hearts for good to any one part of the world. We should live with the conviction: ‘I wasn’t born for one particular corner; the whole world’s my home country.'”
As I flip through this book that I just finished reading this morning, I gaze upon page after page of my scribbles in the margins, marking a passage here, a phrase there, a sentence or two and quote after quote, and I realize, here’s a book I want to re-read soon, at least once more. Makes me understand what Ferriss is talking about, when he says about Letters from a Stoic that “I’ve read it dozens of times, and I loved it so much that I turned it into The Tao of Seneca, a three-volume set of audiobooks. If you prefer a written version of the Tao of Seneca, you can find it here for free.“
Throughout the letters, Seneca is clear on one thing above all else, coming back to it again and again, and that is how philosophy, the love of wisdom, is to be put to practical use:
“What we hear the philosophers saying and what we find in their writings should be applied in our pursuit of the happy life. We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching, and the spirited and nobel-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application – not far-fetched or archaic expressions or extravagant metaphors and figures of speech – and learn them so well that words becomes works.”
This cuts to the core of one of my pet peeves concerning the self-help genre, which is that many people don’t seem willing to do the work. Reading book after book, without actually trying it on for size. Somehow believing that just reading it, will make whatever the book is talking about come true? Laziness? An unwillingness to step outside both comfort and possibly safety zones? To use Senecas words, reading, but not applying the advice. And that will not make a change in how life is perceived, not in the least. And to finish off where I started this post, how will I ever know if what works for you (or the Stoics), might work for me, unless I try it?
The book I am blogging about is part of the book-reading challenge I’ve set for myself during 2018, to read and blog about 26 Swedish and 26 English books, one book every week, books that I already own.